The origins of Rome

Archaeological evidence indicates that the territory of Rome was not permanently inhabited until around 1000 BC. The first people who settled around the Tiber valley and the area that became Rome were the Latins and the Sabines, two of the Indo-European peoples referred to collectively as Italians. These groups drifted down from the North across the Alps into the Italian peninsula at the end of the second millennium BC. The people of Latium, as this area was later called, were divided into several independent groups organized in separate communities, but all considered themselves members of the same broader family with largely common interests.1 The Latin culture and conditions of life displayed very little change until the late seventh century BC. In this period the people of Latium encountered the Etruscans, who occupied the neighbouring territory of Tuscany, and later the Greeks and the Carthaginians.

Unlike the Latins, the Etruscans were a city-dwelling people. Their fortified cities, situated on hilltops and other easy-to-defend positions, formed strong political and commercial centres. Each city was politically independent and, until the sixth or early fifth century BC, was governed by a king chosen from among a few noble families. Although in later years the kings were replaced by annually elected magistrates, the Etruscans’ social and political organization remained predominantly aristocratic in character. Economic life was based on agriculture, cattle-rearing, industry and commerce. The Etruscans were also a powerful maritime people and through sea-trade they established contacts with other Mediterranean peoples, such as the Greeks and the Phoenicians. The Greek influence on their culture is reflected in their art and architecture, and is evidenced by the thousands of tomb inscriptions they left behind. These inscriptions indicate that the Etruscans adopted a Greek alphabet (probably from the Greek city of Cumae in Campania) before the end of the seventh century BC.

Towards the end of the seventh century BC, the Etruscans initiated their territorial expansion in Italy by conquering neighbouring Latium. The occupation of Latium launched the urbanization of the rural communities settled in the area around the river Tiber that later evolved as the city of Rome. By the middle of the sixth century BC, the Etruscans had gained control over a large territory extending from the Adriatic coast in the east to the Alps in the north, and from the Arno river to the bay of Naples on Italy’s western coast. But the Etruscan domination of Italy was brief, largely due to the rigidity of their aristocratic system of government that thwarted the peaceful assimilation of subject populations, and the lack of an effective political alliance between the Etruscan city-states to secure their territorial gains. In the late sixth century BC, the Etruscan power dwindled rapidly following a series of military setbacks and armed revolts of subject populations. Despite the decline of Etruscan power, the Etruscan culture prevailed in productive and influential form for several centuries.

From as early as the eighth century BC, Greek colonies were established on the shores of southern Italy and Sicily. The colonists retained their contemporary culture and systems of government, but each colony was an independent city-state owing no political allegiance to its mother city in mainland Greece. The presence of the Greek element in Italy stimulated the cultural and political development of other Italian communities. It was largely through the Greek cities that the Etruscans and, later, the Romans, came into contact with the more advanced civilizations of the eastern Mediterranean.

According to Roman tradition, Rome was founded in 753 BC by Romulus, a descendant of the Homeric hero Aeneas. Archaeological evidence confirms the presence of several settlements from the ninth to the seventh century BC in the area where Rome was established. These settlements were probably transformed into a city under Etruscan influence in the seventh century BC. The strategic importance of the site compelled the Etruscans to drain the marshy land between the hills and build temples, reservoirs and a city wall. Under an Etruscan ruling elite, the various groups in the area were unified into a single community and organized according to the Etruscan system of political organization. Despite the Etruscans’ role in the formation of Rome and the influence of their civilization on early Roman culture, the Romans and their social institutions remained predominantly Latin in character.

Early Roman society

Similar to other Indo-European communities, the early Roman society was strongly patriarchal and conservative in nature. This pattern remained a distinctive feature of the Romans during most of their history. Obedience to authority, perseverance and keeping faith in unsettled times when it seemed propitious to do so were the ideals that characterized the early Romans’ outlook on life.

The cornerstone of Roman society was the household (familia), a closely knit unit distinguished by its social and economic cohesion. The head of the family (pater familias) had absolute control (patria potestas) over all persons, irrespective of their age, and all property in his household.2 He also performed the sacred rites of the household and, as a judge, inflicted punishments for breaches of the customary norms governing family life. Within the family he was the only person who possessed any rights in private law.

Families claiming descent from a common ancestor formed a broader social group, the gens or clan. The gentes played a central role in the earliest period of Roman history as they performed most of the social, religious and economic functions that were only later gradually assumed by the state. Each gens was distinguished by its own name (nomen gentilicium), celebrated its own religious rites (sacra gentilicia), held meetings and passed resolutions that were binding on all its members. The gentes did not play a direct role in Roman politics during the Republic, but the ruling families of Rome relied upon clan solidarity as a key element for advancing their social and political influence.3

The clans assumed the role of patrons for a motley class of people, the clients (clientes), whose members had a position of complete personal dependence on the clans to which they had attached themselves. The individual or clan members that accorded these people protection were termed, in relation to their clients, patronus or patroni respectively.4 Notwithstanding their inferior status, the clients were free persons in the eyes of the law. A client and patron relationship was hereditary on both sides and based on reciprocity of socially prescribed duties and obligations. Thus, a patron was expected to protect his client’s life and bodily and moral integrity, monitor his financial interests, advise him on legal and other matters and act as his representative in the courts of law (in which a client could not appear alone). In return, a client was expected to support his patron on all occasions and advance his interests by every material or moral resource in his power. Any breach of the trust enshrined within the client–patron relationship entailed was strongly condemned by custom and public opinion as contrary to established social and religious norms. The client system was an extremely important element of Roman society that played a diverse and essential role throughout Roman history.5

Another distinctive feature of early Roman society was the division of the population into two classes: the aristocrats or patricians, who increasingly asserted economic, social and political predominance, and a heterogeneous group of commoners or plebeians.6 The early patrician aristocracy formed a closed order in society with clearly defined privileges based on birth and the ownership of landed property. The members of this class enjoyed all the rights of the Roman citizenship – only they were Roman citizens in a full sense (cives optimo iuris) – and monopolized all political power by controlling the senate, the popular assembly and the various state and religious offices. The plebeian class constituted the great majority of Rome’s population and was mainly composed of small farmers, labourers, artisans and tradesmen. Although its members were Roman citizens, they did not initially enjoy the public rights (iura publica) of the Roman citizenship, such as the right to hold public office (ius honorum), whether political, military or religious.7 Of the private rights (iura privata), the plebeians enjoyed the right of acquiring, holding and transferring property (ius commercii). But it appears that they did not possess the right to contract a regular Roman marriage (ius connubii) and thus intermarriages between plebeians and patricians were forbidden.8

During the early republican era, the plebeian class continued to grow, while the old patrician aristocracy rapidly declined in numbers. Although the gap between the rich and the poor generally expanded, several plebeian families acquired considerable wealth and, from a position of strength, began to challenge the patricians’ monopoly of political power. For nearly two centuries after the establishment of the Republic, Rome’s internal history was marked by the struggle between the two classes. During this contest (designated ‘the struggle of the orders’), the plebeians gradually removed all obstacles to their political emancipation and secured equality with the patricians regarding civil rights. However, the plebeians’ success only erased a specific political division and, overall, did not affect the more fundamental division between the rich and the poor. After the struggle of the orders, the meaning of the term ‘plebs’ gradually changed. During the last century of the republican era this term did not denote a politically distinct social group, but simply the whole mass of lowly and poverty-stricken citizens in contradistinction with Rome’s new nobility of wealth and office.9

Economic conditions

In early Roman history, economic life mostly revolved around cattle-rearing and agriculture. Indeed, for many centuries the cultivation of land was viewed as one of the most important activities for a Roman citizen. It seems more likely that, initially, the pasture-land remained largely undivided while the arable land gradually became open to private ownership. However, there is little agreement among historians over the scope of the institution of private property or the process of its introduction into early Roman society.10 Under the influence of the Etruscans, the Romans later developed an interest in commerce and industry that was precipitated by the transformation of their settlements into a city-state. Payment for the various products was initially made in kind (probably in timber, salt, cattle and such like), as coinage was not introduced in Rome until the later fourth century BC. Instead of coins, the early Romans often used in their transactions pieces or ingots of bronze (aes), whose value was determined according to their weight.11 After the introduction of a written alphabet in the fifth century BC, the Romans began to record their customary rules relating to property and to draft legal documents for certain economic transactions, testaments and wills.

The political organization of the regal period

According to Roman historical tradition, a succession of seven kings had governed Rome in the first two and a half centuries after the city’s establishment.12 The office of king (rex) was not hereditary but elective; moreover, although technically the king was supreme warlord, priest and judge, his authority was limited by the clan organization and the characteristic Roman habit of eliciting advice before action. As the chief priest of the state, the king acted as an intermediary between the community and its gods, and exercised general supervision over all matters relating to public worship.13 In times of war, as commander-in-chief of the army, he called the people to arms and led them in the battlefield. Moreover, as the supreme judge of the community, the king had jurisdiction over all matters in both public and private law.14 In executing these tasks the king would usually seek cooperation from the heads of the leading families. The royal power appears to have significantly expanded in the late seventh and sixth centuries BC with the introduction, under Etruscan influence, of the principle of imperium or supreme command.

The Roman kings turned for advice to a council of clan elders or senate, which probably represented the collective opinion of the patrician class.15 The members of the senate (patres, senatores) were appointed by the king from among the heads of the patrician families. Besides functioning as the king’s advisory body (regium consilium), the senate was also entrusted with the task of governing the state during the period between the death of a king and the election of another (interregnum) through a succession of senators acting as temporary kings (interreges). Moreover, the king would often, for convenience, delegate the management of state affairs to the senate, but the senate was bound to act within its limited authority granted by the king. As the scope of the senate’s authority was not prescribed officially, the extent of a king’s power greatly affected the degree of influence this body exercised.

Since the state’s success ultimately depended on the cooperation of the citizenry, the king and his council found it expedient to inform the people of important decisions and therefore occasionally convoked a gathering called the curiate assembly (comitia curiata).16 This assembly was composed of the thirty curiae, or wards, into which the whole citizen body (populus Romanus) was divided.17 Its functions probably had a largely religious nature and included the inauguration of the king and the election of priests. The assembly also met to consider important matters concerning the entire community, such as the declaration of war or the conclusion of peace and the admission of a new clan. Strictly speaking, the curiate assembly had no legislative power but its most important function was the formal sanctioning of the laws proposed by the king. Moreover, a newly elected king acquired his imperium, or supreme command, by a special law issued by this assembly – the lex curiata de imperio. Although ostensibly the assembly had a passive political role during the regal era, the idea that political authority rested ultimately with the Roman people as a whole had great importance in the development of Roman political theory.

According to Roman historians, the military and political organization of Rome underwent an important change during the reign of King Servius Tullius (c. 578–535 BC). The Roman army was enlarged and new battle tactics were introduced to improve its effectiveness.18 The reformed army was organized, further, into centuries or groups of a hundred soldiers. In order to recruit and equip these units, the entire citizen body was divided into five classes on the basis of wealth and each class supplied a set number of centuries (a total of one hundred and ninety-three centuries existed). The first class, comprising the wealthiest citizens, those who could equip themselves with horses and heavy armour, provided most of the centuries. On the basis of this division of citizens into classes and centuries, a new political body was formed over time, the centuriate assembly (comitia centuriata), which replaced the curiate assembly as the chief political body in the state.

According to Roman tradition, the kingship ended with the expulsion of the Etruscan King Tarquinius Superbus (Tarquinius the Proud) in 509 BC, but the circumstances surrounding its demise are uncertain. Apparently, the fall of the Monarchy was devised by the patricians who, chafing under high-handed foreign monarchs who did not respect their prestige (dignitas) or their advice, led a movement that wrested control of the state from the king. The uprising was probably inspired by similar movements in neighbouring cities and precipitated by the general weakening of the Etruscan power in Italy.